Saturday, September 23, 2017

Tai Chi Chuan and the Key to Happiness

Tai Chi Chuan and the Key to Happiness

We all want happiness. I ran into an interesting statement which I will paraphrase: 

Easy Choices, Hard Life;

Hard Choices, Easy Life.

What?

I have been studying something else besides tai chi and that something else is a language which does not use the English alphabet, Arabic. It has been a challenge to learn new letters, new sounds in some cases, totally new looking words - just about NO correlation to English. This is not my best skill set so to say this is a challenge is an understatement.

And yet my favorite 1.5 hours each week is Arabic class. Small, nice interested group of students, and a wonderful teacher. Some of the classes I just love and they feel easy. Other classes, I sort of dread because they threaten to push into my deficiencies. I struggle.

Yet I leave the class buzzed! It is always fun. The teacher will review and review and break things down more and more if needed. I find the material and the process fascinating. New phrases, new grammar, new rules of pronunciation and so forth. It is much more work than I had anticipated or desired. It is also much more fun.

I have often wanted to quit tai chi but have been pulled back time and time again. Arabic may be yet another skill to add to that list.

Happiness?  It seems to me that both have something in common and that is what makes them so joyful in the end. It has to do with being absorbed by what you are doing. To really give this thing (movement, position, letter, word, grammatical nuance) your full attention. It is simply that. Total focus. The more the better.

I am beginning to think that focus and attention – for whatever reason – is the key to happiness.

Nothing else will do it. Focus is a process; it is not a result or a success story within itself. Just take a look at what you think brings you happiness. Do you not focus on it, attend to it? Would it be the same if you didn’t focus on it? Are those items that come effortlessly more satisfying than those that you need to work on, focus on?

I notice one obstacle to tai chi in general and that is the notion that by just doing it, all will be well, that benefits will come your way. Most of us go on automatic pilot and sort of don’t exist in much of our practice – and it doesn’t improve. It has to mean enough to you that you want as much of your attention to be on it as you can.  It is more than just brushing your teeth or taking a shower.

When I say this, I am not implying maniacal self-critical correction mode. That doesn’t help either. I was prone to this at one point and I realized I could no longer practice where the focus was on fixing fixing fixing. I was one big act of masochism. No, what I am talking about is paying attention. There may be some fixing. But it is also just seeing what is there as you do it.

The more you attend, the better it will feel. But regardless of that, the more you attend, the more you will feel happy. And this applies to everything.  In my language class, I don’t have a choice. If I didn’t pay attention, it would be utterly pointless. I’d quit in a flash.

Hard choices always require great attention and effort. And it helps if these are truly choices!

Even if you are doing something you don’t want to do, I believe that if you do it with resistance, it becomes a chore and not very satisfying. But if you simply put all of your attention on it, the time will be something you enjoy. Attention is a choice you can make.

All the easier when you WANT to attend to the activity you are involved in.

So I hope that tai chi has that kind of interest for you. You don’t even have to be good at it to create some happiness. You just need to show up and pay attention. Want to pay attention.

Find that thing that you want to focus on, even if it isn’t tai chi, and you will have a life of happy moments.


Results are nice, but focus is a thrill!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Tai Chi Bit By Bit

Tai Chi Bit By Bit

To continue with my language metaphor, learning tai chi is very much like learning a VERY foreign language (as in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic - where there is no English alphabet). I’m studying Arabic.

We learn letters, then groups of letters that make up a word, then words that combine with other words to form meaning, then grammatical rules so that the combinations can be replicated and imitated in other sentences and so forth.

But you have to start from the beginning. Like a letter. Or a shape.  Like imagine learning the paragraph sentence above in another language.

We learn how a letter combines with another letter and how that sounds, and how a movement progresses into the next part of the movement to make a continuous sequence. Then the sound combinations will have meaning, as the movement sequence will have a martial or energetic functioning.

Then grammar kicks in so that you can manipulate those words consistently.

In tai chi, you incorporate principles to the basic movements and combination of movements in order to have an entire posture. A posture in tai chi is the movement from beginning to end of one small section that has one basic function. It makes its own sentence. Each posture has a name but each posture is made up of several letters and even words. But in order to pronounce the letters together correctly, you need principles that cement the beginning and the end into one functioning statement.

We conceptualize the form as having three sections. I might call these paragraphs which contain multiple moves. How you pronounce your moves, connect your moves, improve your grammar, your pronunciation will impact on the meaning of the paragraph.

Some think that once you “know” the paragraph, you can move on. Well, not quite. As you learn nuance, the meaning in the paragraph will change. And as you learn the infinite variable sentences of push hands, you change the meaning of your tai chi form.

“Fire” vs. “fire”.  One is a noun, one is a verb. In that previous sentence, I follow the rules of capital lettering. And if you say the word “fire”, the context will drive the meaning. And even when you choose a meaning through the context, the feeling of that meaning will have infinite variations.

“Through”. “Threw”. “Through”.

I threw the ball.
I am now through.
I went through the tunnel.

Sound and meaning. Context and emotion. Written expertise. All of these are factors in these sentences just like each posture has a context and a meaning depending on the person doing the form.

Your form may be the moves. Or it may be the connection between the moves, or the fullness of each move, or how the fullness in yang part of the move dissolves into the yin part of the move to create an ebb and flow, not just a straight line. Or it may be an expression of a martial arts move or the expression of a body that knows how to fill up and expand and empty to become light and nimble, it may be the folding and unfolding and how the body makes that happen through relaxation, sinking, non-doing.

Some writers are terse, others elaborate. Some have a light touch, others a thickness that needs effort to read. Some love long intricate sentences, others as brief as poetry.  For some the meaning is IN the words, for others, the meaning is what is between the words or what is not stated.

So too your form.

Of course, the kind of learning I’m talking about is not the only way to learn. We actually absorb our native tongue far before we can break it down and understand its internal workings. Some learn tai chi in exactly this way as well.

There is a childlike absorption process in learning both language and tai chi. At first you are learning even though you don’t know you are learning something. The language takes you. Tai chi takes you. Only later can you pull it apart to see what has taken place, hidden in plain sight, to reveal deeper expression. It takes deep reflection on what has taken place in the past to understand this.

Mastery comes when it simply comes out of you without any effort. We don’t construct HOW to say anything after a while. It just appears as you need it. No gaps in execution.

Arabic is difficult and technical, and like my native language I hope it can just flow someday. Like tai chi, it is extraordinarily elegant. And for me, worth the effort.


To find something, ANYTHING that requires this kind of attention is of great value.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Structures of Growth, Brooks, NY Times, June 16, 2014 (and tai chi)

The Structures of Growth, Learning is no easy task. David Brooks, NY Times, June 16, 2014.

You’ll have to pull this one up by yourself, but it is thoughtful reading and very relevant to the tai chi learning curve.

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/17/opinion/david-brooks-learning-is-no-easy-task.html


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Tai Chi Chuan and Allowing

Tai Chi Chuan and Allowing

Navesink

Before he died, blind and emaciated,
my grandfather, who loved the opera,
told me sometimes
among the tall trees he walked and
listened to the sound
of a river entering the sea
by letting itself be swallowed.

Meghan O’Rourke, New Yorker, 3.13.17

This lovely poem reminds me of where we want to go in practicing Tai Chi. We want the chi of the world to swallow us up and let it become you. The key word here is “letting”. This is truly hard “to do” because you can’t DO it, you need to set up conditions where this is possible and allow it, conditions such as relax, body upright, feet flat, beautiful lady’s wrist, integration of movement, mindful resting…

I recall someone saying that Professor said that the universe is full of chi and it is free, but it is very hard to access.

As the poem implies, this is a kind of death. A death of separation, a refusal to allow nature its wonder and your participation in that wonder.

Now it is up to you.



Sunday, February 5, 2017

Tai Chi Chuan - What I ....

Tai Chi Chuan – What I ….

It has struck me recently how often what we want is somewhere else, when what we need is right in front of us. And we focus on what we want.

This happens in tai chi class all the time. The student craves a certain experience, so (s)he abandons or resists what they are doing in the present.

I wonder how often I do this - anywhere, anytime, anyplace.


One thing is for sure. Tai chi, like what we want, is an exercise about letting go. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

New York Times article on the benefits of relaxation

New York Times article on the benefits of relaxation


THINK for a moment about your typical workday. Do you wake up tired? Check your e-mail before you get out of bed? Skip breakfast or grab something on the run that’s not particularly nutritious? Rarely get away from your desk for lunch? Run from meeting to meeting with no time in between? Find it nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of e-mail you receive? Leave work later than you’d like, and still feel compelled to check e-mail in the evenings?

More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace. Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.

“More, bigger, faster.” This, the ethos of the market economies since the Industrial Revolution, is grounded in a mythical and misguided assumption — that our resources are infinite. 
  
Time is the resource on which we’ve relied to get more accomplished. When there’s more to do, we invest more hours. But time is finite, and many of us feel we’re running out, that we’re investing as many hours as we can while trying to retain some semblance of a life outside work.

Although many of us can’t increase the working hours in the day, we can measurably increase our energy. Science supplies a useful way to understand the forces at play here. Physicists understand energy as the capacity to do work. Like time, energy is finite; but unlike time, it is renewable. Taking more time off is counterintuitive for most of us. The idea is also at odds with the prevailing work ethic in most companies, where downtime is typically viewed as time wasted. More than one-third of employees, for example, eat lunch at their desks on a regular basis. More than 50 percent assume they’ll work during their vacations.

In most workplaces, rewards still accrue to those who push the hardest and most continuously over time. But that doesn’t mean they’re the most productive.

Spending more hours at work often leads to less time for sleep and insufficient sleep takes a substantial toll on performance. In a study of nearly 400 employees, published last year, researchers found that sleeping too little — defined as less than six hours each night — was one of the best predictors of on-the-job burn-out. A recent Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.

The Stanford researcher Cheri D. Mah found that when she got male basketball players to sleep 10 hours a night, their performances in practicedramatically improved: free-throw and three-point shooting each increased by an average of 9 percent.

Daytime naps have a similar effect on performance. When night shift air traffic controllers were given 40 minutes to nap — and slept an average of 19 minutes — they performed much better on tests that measured vigilance and reaction time.

Longer naps have an even more profound impact than shorter ones. Sara C. Mednick, a sleep researcher at the University of California, Riverside, found that a 60- to 90-minute nap improved memory test results as fully as did eight hours of sleep.

MORE vacations are similarly beneficial. In 2006, the accounting firm Ernst & Young did an internal study of its employees and found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings from supervisors (on a scale of one to five) improved by 8 percent. Frequent vacationers were also significantly less likely to leave the firm.

As athletes understand especially well, the greater the performance demand, the greater the need for renewal. When we’re under pressure, however, most of us experience the opposite impulse: to push harder rather than rest. This may explain why a recent survey by Harris Interactive found that Americans left an average of 9.2 vacation days unused in 2012 — up from 6.2 days in 2011.

The importance of restoration is rooted in our physiology. Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.

In the 1950s, the researchers William Dement and Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that we sleep in cycles of roughly 90 minutes, moving from light to deep sleep and back out again. They named this pattern the Basic-Rest Activity Cycle or BRAC. A decade later, Professor Kleitman discovered that this cycle recapitulates itself during our waking lives.

The difference is that during the day we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes. Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and instead stoke ourselves up with caffeine, sugar and our own emergency reserves — the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.

Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.

“To maximize gains from long-term practice,” Dr. Ericsson concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

I’ve systematically built these principles into the way I write. For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions — beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest — and took a break after each one.

Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance. Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward. For one of the breaks, I ran. This generated mental and emotional renewal, but also turned out to be a time in which some of my best ideas came to me, unbidden. Writing just four and half hours a day, I completed both books in less than six months and spent my afternoons on less demanding work.

The power of renewal was so compelling to me that I’ve created a business around it that helps a range of companies including Google, Coca-Cola, Green Mountain Coffee, the Los Angeles Police Department, Cleveland Clinic and Genentech.

Our own offices are a laboratory for the principles we teach. Renewal is central to how we work. We dedicated space to a “renewal” room in which employees can nap, meditate or relax. We have a spacious lounge where employees hang out together and snack on healthy foods we provide. We encourage workers to take renewal breaks throughout the day, and to leave the office for lunch, which we often do together. We allow people to work from home several days a week, in part so they can avoid debilitating rush-hour commutes. Our workdays end at 6 p.m. and we don’t expect anyone to answer e-mail in the evenings or on the weekends. Employees receive four weeks of vacation from their first year.

Our basic idea is that the energy employees bring to their jobs is far more important in terms of the value of their work than is the number of hours they work. By managing energy more skillfully, it’s possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably. In a decade, no one has ever chosen to leave the company. Our secret is simple — and generally applicable. When we’re renewing, we’re truly renewing, so when we’re working, we can really work.

Tony Schwartz is the chief executive officer of The Energy Project and the author, most recently, of “Be Excellent at Anything.”

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Exercise fights Depression - The New York Times article

Exercise fights Depression – New York Times article


Exercise may be an effective treatment for depression and might even help prevent us from becoming depressed in the first place, according to three timely new studies. The studies pool outcomes from past research involving more than a million men and women and, taken together, strongly suggest that regular exercise alters our bodies and brains in ways that make us resistant to despair
.
Scientists have long questioned whether and how physical activity affects mental health. While we know that exercise alters the body, how physical activity affects moods and emotions is less well understood.
Past studies have sometimes muddied rather than clarified the body and mind connections. Some randomized controlled trials have found that exercise programs, often involving walking, ease symptoms in people with major depression.

But many of these studies have been relatively small in scale or had other scientific deficiencies. A major 2013 review of studies related to exercise and depression concluded that, based on the evidence then available, it was impossible to say whether exercise improved the condition. Other past reviews similarly have questioned whether the evidence was strong enough to say that exercise could stave off depression.
A group of global public-health researchers, however, suspected that newer studies and a more rigorous review of the statistical evidence might bolster the case for exercise as a treatment of and block against depression.

So for the new analyses, they first gathered all of the most recent and best-designed studies about depression and exercise.

Then, for perhaps the most innovative of the new studies, which was published last month in Preventive Medicine, they focused on whether exercise could help to prevent someone from developing depression.
The scientists knew that many past studies of that topic had relied on people providing reports about how much they had exercised. We human beings tend to be notoriously unreliable in our memories of past workouts, though.

 So the researchers decided to use only past studies that had objectively measured participants’ aerobic fitness, which will rise or fall depending on whether and how much someone exercises. Participants’ mental health also had to have been determined with standard testing at the start and finish of the studies, and the follow-up time needed to have been at least a year and preferably longer.

Ultimately, the researchers found several large-scale past studies that met their criteria. Together, they contained data on more than 1,140,000 adult men and women.

Among these million-plus people, the links between fitness and mental health turned out to be considerable. When the researchers divided the group into thirds, based on how aerobically fit they were, those men and women with the lowest fitness were about 75 percent more likely to have been given diagnoses of depression than the people with the greatest fitness. The men and women in the middle third were almost 25 percent more likely to develop depression than those who were the most fit.

In a separate study (some of the scientists were involved in each of the reviews), researchers looked at whether exercise might be useful as a treatment for depression. In that analysis, which was published in June in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, they pooled data from 25 past studies in which people with clinically diagnosed depression began some type of exercise program. Each study had to include a control group that did not exercise and be otherwise methodologically sophisticated.

The pooled results persuasively showed that exercise, especially if it is moderately strenuous, such as brisk walking or jogging, and supervised, so that people complete the entire program, has a “large and significant effect” against depression, the authors wrote. People’s mental health tended to demonstrably improve if they were physically active.

The final review offers some hints about why. Published in February in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, it took on the difficult issue of what happens within our bodies during and after exercise that might affect and improve our moods. The researchers analyzed 20 past studies in which scientists had obtained blood samples from people with major depression before and after they had exercised. The samples on the whole indicated that exercise significantly reduced various markers of inflammation and increased levels of a number of different hormones and other biochemicals that are thought to contribute to brain health.

But the researchers also caution that most of the physiological studies they reviewed were too small and short-term to allow for firm conclusions about how exercise might change the brain to help fight off gloom.

Still, the three reviews together make a sturdy case for exercise as a means to bolster mental as well as physical health, said Felipe Barreto Schuch, an exercise scientist at the Centro Universit├írio La Salle in Canoas, Brazil, who, with Brendon Stubbs, a professor at King’s College in London, was a primary author on all of the reviews.

Many more experiments are still needed to determine the ideal amounts and types of exercise that might help both to prevent and treat depression, Dr. Schuch said.


But he encouraged anyone feeling overwhelmed by recent events, or just by life, to go for a run or a bike ride. “The main message” of his and his colleagues’ reviews, he said, “is that people need to be active to improve their mental health.”